Which Pedal Gets That Clean Tone? (Or A $2,000 Pedalboard and a $50 Amp)
Sorry that the title is a bit confusing. I thought I’d try the two title thing, pulled together by an ‘or.’ You know, like Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends’ album. Because it’s definitely not lame sauce to steal ideas from famous people and pretend you never noticed. My motto is, if it worked for somebody famous, you should always steal it and pretend that it was your idea, and blindly ignore everyone who thinks it’s really dorky that you just copied whatever seemed to be popular and thought the public was so dumb they wouldn’t notice. No, that’s not really a motto; it’s just me saying words. (That’s from a movie, too……see? In explaining my motto, I even put my motto into practice. Good times.)
But my point is (and apologies that it seems like you always have to completely skip the first paragraph to find out what the point is) that I get a lot of people asking me what pedal they should buy to get good tone. And I always say, ‘Well, after your hands, tone starts first with your guitar.’ And they say, ‘Oh, ya, I already have one of those.’ And it is a really, really common and easy misperception to make; that pedals make your tone. Because if you’ve got one amp, one guitar, but 83 pedals, it would seem like that’s where most of the tone comes from.
(See? Pedals are just way the coolest of all the gear. Sorry, this one always makes me laugh. This is one of the Freakshow pedals.)
And I used to be extremely guilty of this. At one time (man, honesty sucks), I had two pedalboards that I gigged out with (ya, together), with a total of something like 37 pedals between the two of them. There were thousands of dollars in my pedalboards. And I’ve explained this before; I was unmarried at the time, lived with roommates so rent was low, it was the early 2000′s when everyone thought credit was banks just being sweet, and I worked two jobs so I could say that the reason I couldn’t get a date was because I was so busy all the time, not because I had shoulder length hair, but didn’t own a brush. So I had a lot of extra money for gear. But I put it all into pedals. Thousands of dollars in my boards, but I was playing knockoff particle board guitars, and borrowed amps. Now, by this time, they were at least tube amps. But still.
(Ya. That’s me. Years ago. I specifically chose a photo not showing my face so that I can deny it’s me later. Note the stringy long hair in a time way too far into the 2000′s for long hair. And note what my band affectionately or not-so-affectionately called the ‘Jesus slippers.’ Hmm……just stunning that I couldn’t get a date. Also, check out the humoungous pedalboard, with the relatively cheap guitar and speakers. The amp’s okay by this time. And of course, if your band is playing in the mall parking lot, you’ve absolutely made it.)
See, the pedalboard is by far the coolest looking and sounding thing. But it’s a tool. Your tone comes from your guitar and your amp. The pedals are called ‘effects’ for a reason. They are ‘effecting’ your tone. Not giving you tone. The point is to buy ones that let your true tone from your guitar and amp shine through; with an effect tagged onto the sound, but the original sound still prominent. If you have a bad sounding tone with your guitar and amp, a pedal will never change that. Let the pedals give you the desired palette of sound, or texture, or effect, or ambiance, and then get them out of the way. Even the ones that are on a good portion of the time.
Now every once in a while you’ll find someone who has a clean boost or something they leave on all the time to ‘change the tone of their amp’ or to ‘make their amp’s tone better.’ And some people get great results from this (and I’m not talking about buffers…that’s something different altogether). Some people also get great results from cheap guitars and amps. This is not about getting the most expensive gear, or about throwing away all your pedals. In the end, do what sounds best to you. What this is about is priorities. In order to get a good tone, your mindset needs to be that the majority of your time, efforts, tone-tweaking, and money, should be spent on your guitar and your amp. Let the pedals be effects. And if you look at your rig, and realize that your pedalboard is quite disproportionately more expensive than your main guitar and amp combined, it doesn’t necessarily mean your tone sucks. Nothing ‘necessarily’ means your tone sucks. (Except solid state amps and bad cables……again, kidding! But just a little. Kind of serious. Slight bit of kidding there.) But it might be a good indicator that your priorities might possibly be off.
A pedalboard of stock Boss and Danelectro effects coupled with a great boutique amp and a handmade guitar with handwired pickups will 99% of the time beat hands down a pedalboard of quality, boutique effects coupled with a low quality guitar and amp. (And I always leave the 1% in there in case somebody proves me wrong. Then I don’t have to eat it as hard and everyone still thinks, ‘Well, he was wrong, but at least he wasn’t fully committed to that opinion. Amazing what a little bit of non-committal, pretend humility will get ya. )